Periyar’s powerful journalism

Most people know little about this aspect of his legacy – this, when his contribution to the field of journalism is so significant and so original that he can be called ‘Periyar’ (the great one) even if we forget about all his other contributions, writes Omprakash Kashyap

Periyar’s public life was very hectic and multidimensional. He fought simultaneously on many fronts for the rights of the Tamil people, especially the non-Brahmins, and to arouse a feeling of self-respect in them. He fought against caste-based discrimination and inequality, sociopolitical hegemony, religious hypocrisy, social evils and customs, suppression of women, Devadasi system, child marriage and ban on widow remarriage. There was hardly a concern which was not his concern. There was hardly any tragic situation he didn’t fight against. He was a businessman, leader, social reformer, thinker, linguist, scientist, rationalist, agitator and guide – all rolled into one. There was one more dimension to his multi-faceted personality. He was also a journalist and a writer. Most people know little about this aspect of his legacy – this, when his contribution to the field of journalism is so significant and so original that he can be called “Periyar” (the great one) even if we forget about all his other contributions. He was associated with newspapers and magazines titled Kudi Arasu (1925), Dravidian (1927), Revolt (1928), Puratchi (1933), Pagutharivu (1934), Viduthalai (1935), Justice (1942), Unmai (1970) and The Modern Rationalist (1971). He launched some of them, edited others. He spent a sizable chunk of his earnings on these newspapers and journals. He lost money in these ventures and was jailed on many occasions for the writings that he published. But he did not allow that to alter his concern. His commitment to human values was unshakeable.

After parting ways with the Congress in 1925, he laid the foundations of the Self-Respect Movement. As the Brahmin-dominated press didn’t give any space for the issues of the non-Brahmins, he chose journalism to reach out to the people with the ideology and the programmes of the Self-Respect Movement. It began with Kudi Arasu. Here is an overview of the magazines and newspapers edited and published by Periyar:

Kudi Arasu

Kudi Arasu, in Tamil, means “rule of the people”, that is a republic. Periyar had launched this weekly to take his thinking to the people. The first issue of the magazine came out on 2 May 1925 from Erode. Its first editor was M. Thangaperumal Pillai and the cover price was one ana. The annual subscription was Rs 3. It was printed at the Unmai Vilakkam Press on Cutcherry Street in Erode and would reach its readers on Sundays. Talking about the need for bringing out a newspaper, Periyar wrote in the first issue:

“There are many newspapers in the country but they are afraid to be true to their conscience. Unlike those newspapers I propose to give expression courageously in the Kudi Arasu to the truth as I see it.”[1]

Its first issue bore a crest with the figures of Bharat Mata, a woman at the spinning wheel, a peasant with a plough and a weaver at the loom. Symbolizing religious unity, it contained the pictures of a church and a temple.

The editorial of the inaugural issue, written by Periyar, said, “We would certainly say to those who are interested to know about the ideals of our news medium that our mother country should develop its society, economy, politics and morality. Through this, we will tirelessly work for the mental and physical growth of the people and for the development of art and religion. It is not the intention of our newspaper just to call for nation and nationalism leaving aside all other noble ideals. But nation and nationalism should develop self-respect, socialism and fraternity among the people, who in turn should be bound by love and affection. The feelings of high and low add fuel to the fire of burning caste conflicts in society. Equality, devoid of all these social evils, should be maintained. Religious feuds and the evil of bringing gods to the courts of law should be discouraged. This weekly is devoted to the task of achieving these and other ideals for the benefit of the people.”[2]

This newspaper became the prime vehicle for the ideas of Periyar. The writings in its initial issues contained the seeds of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement. In the subsequent issues, Periyar made it clear that harping on only about nation and nationalism and fanning hostility between different sections on the pretext of nationalism, while ignoring the issues related to the progress of the common man, was not what the weekly intended to do. Periyar believed that a feeling of arrogance or of inferiority based on Varna or caste only served to strengthen casteism. This feeling should be done away with immediately. The people should be made to realize the truth that all humans are equal.

The newspaper’s crest carried poet Bharathi’s verse as its motto and declared that its objective was to inculcate the sentiments of self-respect, equality and fraternity in the people. Social inequality and the feelings of high and low add fuel to the fire of caste conflicts, hence such inequality should be done away with immediately to promote a feeling of harmony and goodwill among the people.

Periyar did not intend to use Kudi Arasu only as a means of informing the people about the activities of the Self-Respect Movement. His objective was to apprise the people of the caste system, religious hypocrisy and other evils of Hindu society as well as the concept of social justice through his courageous writings. Kudi Arasu had a rebellious tone from the very outset. It was as Periyar had intended. Kudi Arasu carried articles attacking casteist discrimination, religious ostentation and mythological tales. The language was simple but biting. “Who is fit to receive donations? Brahmins”; “Why do we criticize Brahmins?”, “The truth of pilgrimage and the place of pilgrimages?”, “Is Kudi Arasu’s criticism of the Brahmins logical?” Articles with such headlines not only attacked Brahmanism without any demur but also pointed to the religious shackles that bound the Hindu community at the time.

Kudi Arasu had announced that it would work for the self-reliance and the welfare of humans and would keep an eye on socio-religious pomp and show and distortions. It had also made it clear that it would not get entangled in political wrangling and would back constructive politics. Unlike the Congress and other political outfits of the time and the other newspapers published then, Kudi Arasu was not a nationalist publication. Indeed, Periyar wanted the country to become free. But for him, freedom from social absurdities like caste, casteist inequality, untouchability and religious ritualism was as important as freedom from British rule. Hence, its focus was on addressing social issues. It openly criticized all top leaders of the time who called themselves nationalists. Given its concerns and outlook, Kudi Arasu’s rise marked a revolution in the history of journalism in Tamil Nadu.

The cover page of an issue of Kudi Arasu; Periyar (right)

The entire Tamil-speaking area constituted the readership of Kudi Arasu. Initially, its print order was 2,000, which rose to 10,000 on occasions. But the circulation was not an accurate measure of its readership. There were many who could not afford to buy a copy. In the rural areas, the copies of the newspaper reached the homes of the leaders of the Self-Respect Movement, where it was read out to all the residents of the village. Thamizhavel G. Sarangapani played a key role in taking the newspaper to the Tamil diaspora especially in Malaya. When Periyar was in jail or abroad, his wife, Nagammai, his sister Kannammal and his brother E. V. Krishnasamy took up the responsibility of bringing out the newspaper. Besides Periyar, regular contributors to Kudi Arasu included committed fighters like Malayapuram Singaravelu Chettiar. Born into an ordinary family of fishermen, Singaravelu Chettiar was one of the founding fathers of the Communist Party of India. He is often described as the father of the Indian trade union movement. Before the founding of the Communist Party of India, he led a long struggle against caste and untouchability. In 1923, he started the tradition of celebrating 1 May as Labour Day in India. He was also the first to use the term “comrade” for addressing the workers of the Communist Party. Periyar was very impressed with him and requested him to write for Kudi Arasu. Singaravelu played a key role in inculcating an understanding of science and in developing a scientific temper in Periyar. It was through Kudi Arasu that Periyar urged the people to start addressing him as “thothar” (comrade)[3]. And in the next issue of the magazine, he was addressed as “thothar”[4]. The word “Brahmanphobia” was frequently used in Kudi Arasu.

The articles published in the newspaper were supportive of women’s equality, were against casteism and untouchability and focused on atheism. Owing to its courageous and rebellious journalism, Kudi Arasu became a victim of the ire of the government on many occasions. Periyar was charged with treason. An article published by the newspaper in 1933 incensed the government so much that a fine of Rs 1,000 each was imposed on the editor and the printer and Periyar was jailed. The newspaper was banned many a time on the charge of promoting atheism and communism. In 1935, Periyar published the translation of The Communist Manifesto and Bhagat Singh’s text titled Why I am an Atheist. That irked the obscurantist forces to no end. Under their pressure, Kudi Arasu was banned and Periyar and the Tamil translator P. Jeevandhan were arrested. Despite so many obstacles and problems, Kudi Arasu continued publication for around 25 years. It played a seminal role in the renaissance of the Tamil community. Its last issue came out on 5 November 1949.

Dravidian

Dravidian was a daily. It was launched in June 1917 by the South Indian Peoples’ Association. Later, the organization was renamed the Justice Party. As is clear from the title, the newspaper’s objective was to promote non-Brahmin politics in Tamil Nadu. At the time, all the newspapers and magazines were dominated by the Brahmins. The newspapers published by institutions were guided by their selfish sociopolitical interests. So, there was a dire need for a newspaper which could highlight the problems of the non-Brahmins. After a good start, the newspaper began floundering. In ten years, it saw five editors – P. Bhaktavatsalam Pillai (1917-1922), S. Somasundaram (1919), J.N. Ramanathan (1920-21) and A. Shadmugam Pillai (1923). In 1924, J. S. Kannapar was appointed as its editor.

In February 1927, as the popular base of the Justice Party began shrinking, a need was felt for leaders who could help it regain its grip on the people. The party president Raja Panangal and A. Ramasamy Mudaliar requested Periyar to take charge of the newspaper. At the time, the Self-Respect Movement and the Justice Party were working jointly. Periyar had already launched Kudi Arasu but it was a weekly. Ultimately, for the sake of the Justice Party and the Self-Respect Movement, in 1928, Periyar took over the responsibility of editing Dravidian. His endearing language, his grip on issues of public interest and his combative tone benefitted Dravidian and the number of its subscribers began rising.

Among the regular contributors to Dravidian were K.S. Chidambaranar, Neelawati, Gopal and others. The objective of the newspaper was to promote socio-cultural reforms and to inculcate political consciousness among the non-Brahmins. Some people could not digest the coming together of the Justice Party and the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar’s image was that of a vocal non-Brahmin critic of superstitions and of the mythological narratives of the Hindu religion – one who considered the religious rituals as part of a brahmanical conspiracy. They strongly objected to Periyar’s association with Dravidian. Such people started expressing their resentment. The Madras Mail commented on the development thus:

“So far, the leadership of the Justice Party was condemning Brahmins, who are liberal and tolerant, but lack the capacity to resist. Now, it seems that some self-respecting Indians, Brahmin or non-Brahmin, have joined in and their ideological leanings are apparent.”[5]

The apprehensions voiced by The Madras Mail were not unfounded. Justice Party had leaders opposed to Periyar. They took a circuitous route to drive Periyar out of the newspaper. In January 1931, the government ordered Dravidian to furnish a security. Periyar said that he didn’t have the money for the security. He suggested that the newspaper be shut down. It was shut down but only temporarily. Later that year, the newspaper resumed publication under the editorship of Justice Party leader A. Ammal. Dravidian suffered the fate of any publication when its leadership passes into the hands of someone lacking commitment. A. Ammal announced that the newspaper would adopt a “neutral policy” towards religion and social beliefs.

Revolt

Among the newspapers edited by Periyar, Revolt was the third most important after Kudi Arasu and Viduthalai. The latter two were brought out in Tamil while Revolt was published in English. Its first issue came out on 7 November 1928 from Erode. Revolt was printed at Unmai Vilakkam Press, Erode. Periyar’s wife Nagammal was its publisher and printer. It was the organ of the Self-Respect Movement. In its inaugural issue, delineating the need for the publication of the newspaper, S. Ramanathan wrote:

“They [Brahmin politicians] can pose a challenge for us in areas where Kudi Arasu doesn’t have a reach. They can launch a campaign in foreign languages. Our needs have grown and so, for the expansion of our movement, we need an English newspaper to get our ideas to the English-speaking people.”[6]

Due to some unavoidable circumstances, Revolt had to be published from Madras for a while. Later, it was brought back to Erode. Periyar made the initial investment in Revolt. But as the newspaper’s popularity began growing, it started generating enough revenue through sales and subscriptions to sustain itself. But still, the earnings were not high enough to be assured that it would be able to meet its expenses.

In 1928, when Revolt began publication, the literacy rate of non-Brahmins in the Madras Presidency was just seven per cent. Among them, the number of those who could read and understand English was even less. Yet, Periyar took the courageous decision to launch a newspaper in English. Through Revolt, he wanted to convey his ideas to the class that considered itself educated and enlightened but was entrapped in the web of socio-cultural-religious evil practices and considered “faith” above “reason”. In a declaration before a judicial magistrate regarding the publication of Revolt, its publisher-printer Nagammal wrote:

“By the word ‘Revolt’, I mean breaking with restrictions. That is, breaking with that constraint which goes against nature and reason – whether in politics, in bureaucracy, capitalism or in gender relations – whichever constraint violates human welfare (dharma) and human nature.”[7]

Periyar wanted to use Revolt to rebut the criticism of the Self-Respect Movement by the Brahmins. Notwithstanding financial problems and the socio-religious and political opposition, Revolt continued publication without a break till 1930. In this limited period, it published, without pulling punches, articles on the national and international issues related to social and religious reforms. It serialized long articles on the mythical narratives in the epics and the Puranas. It openly critiqued Brahmanism and its religious hypocrisy and casteist mindset. It was the first publication in the history of Indian journalism that pointedly questioned the mythical narratives of the epics and the Puranas and initiated a debate on them.

Revolt was not only the organ of the Self-Respect Movement but was also the carrier of the ideas of Periyar. It regularly published content on elimination of the caste system, Hindi-Muslim unity, problems faced by labourers, Devadasi system, women’s rights, untouchability, the superstitions spread in the garb of tradition and religion, the Congress’ pro-tradition policies and the internal contradictions of Gandhi’s programmes. During the short period of its existence, Revolt responded to national and international issues and concerns: the religious reforms undertaken by Amir Amanullah of Afghanistan; the Congress’ problematic stance on untouchability; that party’s two-facedness in its dealings with the British (invoking in this context, Hegel’s dialectic); the controversy created by the publication of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India and the temple entry struggles organized by the self-respecters. The newspaper not only expressed its views on these issues in a forthright manner but also triggered a lively debate on them in the contemporary newspapers. The initial issues of Revolt were edited by Periyar with the help of S. Ramanathan. Many contributors to the newspaper used aliases. Several much talked-about articles were published under aliases like Kirk (mad person), Fountain Pen, Ritus and BJ. The regular contributors included P. Chidambaram Pillay, George Joseph, K.M. Balasubramaniam, R. Vishwanathan, Guruswamy and others. On occasions, Dr Ambedkar also used to enrich the columns of the newspaper with his articles and reactions. Periyar’s supporter Guruswamy employed satire. His articles played a big role in making Revolt popular.

Besides articles, it also carried the speeches of the leading lights of the Self-Respect Movement like R.K. Shanmugam, Periyar and Ramasamy Mudaliar. It also took note of the activities of Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Santram BA, Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam of Narayan Guru and Dr Ambedkar’s campaigns and movements and their achievements.

A total of 55 issues of Revolt were published during the two years of its existence. It had to be shut down due to consistent losses. By then, many other newspapers that were not only free from the intellectual thralldom of Brahmanism but also had the courage to confront it, had come up. They included Thondan, Suyamariyathai Thondan and Kumaran, which were brought out from Tirunvelli, Erode and Karaikudi, respectively. They partially undid the damage caused to the Self-Respect Movement by the closure of Revolt. Be that as it may, what Revolt achieved in the brief period of its existence was an excellent example of journalism that was rational and had pro-people concerns. The following excerpts from an editorial titled “Religion is in Danger” published by Revolt in its issue dated 22 November 1929 is an example of its journalism of courage:

“The condition in India is however quite different. Here is a religion, whose name is not found in any of the so-called religious books of the ‘Hindus’ and whose sole credit lies in its undeterminable origin and time. But many of its followers say that the Vedas are the authority for their religion. The Vedas are again hypocritically said to be written in a language delivered by the Almighty himself. It is supposed to be written in an unspoken dead language, which should be heard and read only by a divinely descended population of 3 per cent of the ‘Hindus’. The remaining 97 per cent of the population are given the appellation of ‘Sudras’, which means ‘either slaves or sons of Brahmins’ concubines’. If these ‘Sudras’ dare to read the Vedas, their tongues are to be cut off; if they hear the Vedas, their ears are to be filled with molten lead; if they keep any portion of the Vedas in their hearts, their hearts are to be thrown in the fire.”[8]

Only a “Periyar” could have done such courageous, true journalism. As they launched a no-holds-barred attack on Hindu mythology, Kudi Arasu and Revolt only had a limited readership. But that did not worry Periyar. He believed in direct communication with the people through public meetings. If necessary, he addressed several meetings during the course of a day. Commenting on this, T.P. Vedachalam, general secretary of Dravida Kazgham (Dravidian Federation), said, “There were no publicists like Periyar in the past and there is little possibility of publicists like him emerging in the future.” The key theme of his speeches was “Brahmanism is the root of all evils” and this theme was conveyed to the readers in a logical fashion through Revolt.

Puratchi

“Puratchi” means revolution. Puratchi was launched in 1933 and Periyar’s sister Kannambal was its editor. Periyar had just returned from abroad, spending most of his time in the Soviet Union. He was very impressed with the Soviet Union – so much so that had made structural changes to the organization of the Self-Respect Movement to bring it in tune with the communist ideology. In between, the publication of Kudi Arasu had to be suspended for some time due the government’s fiats.

In keeping with its title, Periyar used Puratchi to spread his revolutionary ideas. The government was keeping an eye on him. At the time, the government was extremely wary of communism. The brahmanical forces also saw communism as a threat. On 2 June 1934, Periyar’s brother E.V. Krishnasamy was arrested and charged with conspiring against the government. The office of Puratchi was searched. Later, Krishnasamy was released on bail but before resuming publication, the publisher and printer of Puratchi were ordered to furnish a security of Rs 2,000. Periyar decided to close down the publication rather than depositing the security.

‘Pagutharivu’

After the closure of Puratchi, Periyar began the publication of Pagutharivu in 1934. The word “pagutharivu” means rational. Scholars differ on the exact date of the launch of the publication. According to K. Veeramani, the newspaper was launched on 12 January 1934[9]. Other scholars say it began publication on 26 August 1934[10]Pagutharivu was Kudi Arasu taking on a new form. The alphabets Periyar introduced as part of his reform of the Tamil script in 1932 first appeared in Pagutharivu.

Periyar wrote several scholarly articles on socialism, communism and rationalism in Pagutharivu. By 1934, Periyar had declared himself a staunch atheist. Now, he began critiquing religions other than Hinduism. In 1934, he wrote in Pagutharivu that no religion, including Islam and Christianity, is free from religious evils. The newspaper published a Tamil translation of The Priest, the Woman and the Confessional, in which a Christian priest is shown spreading obscurantist ideas. It says that Christianity, too, promotes unscientific and illogical ideas. In one of his editorials, talking about Hinduism, he writes:

“The religious festivals of Hindus are celebrated at public places. Pandals are erected right in the middle of the roads. The roads are completely taken over – just as it happens when the deity of Vijayanagar is taken for immersion into the sea. This can lead to communal violence. If there is a mosque on the route of the procession and if most of the people living around happen to be Muslims, the possibility of a riot breaking out is even higher. During Navratri, rival groups extort ‘donations’ from the people. This shows how our festivals have become a big danger for public security and peace …”[11]

The newspaper published many stories on the economy. Some of them demanded an immediate waiver of all public and private loans. Like Puratchi, this newspaper, too, could last only for a year.

Viduthalai

Viduthalai has pride of place among the newspapers founded by Periyar. The word “viduthalai” means freedom. The daily, launched in 1935, was published in Tamil. By 1935, the Self-Respect Movement had won considerable popular support. The movement had branches in all districts and towns. Vidhuthalai was launched by Periyar to act as a vehicle for taking his ideas to the general public and the workers of the Self-Respect Movement. E.V. Krishnasamy was the publisher and Mutthusami Pillai, the editor. The newspaper sought to make the people aware of the brahmanical mumbo-jumbo, hypocrisy and rituals and promote scientific temper. The newspaper was merciless in pounding the narratives that formed part of the Vedas and the Puranas. This naturally infuriated a section of the people. The newspaper’s editor Mutthusamy had to spend six months in jail on the charge of fomenting division and enmity between the Aryans and the Dravidians[12].

A maxim or two was published on the second page in each issue of Vidhuthalai. Normally, daily newspapers publish short articles focusing on the contemporary burning issues, which keep changing by the day. But Viduthalai was different. It published long articles centred on topics that had nothing to do with the affairs of the day. The articles were so long that they were published in instalments. One such topic was “Rationalism in world history”. Viduthalai regularly published news related to scientific inventions and science emerging from around the world. As rationalism was its guiding light, Viduthalai’s tone and tenor was anti-government and it tore into brahmanical excesses and the Hindu scriptures. That, on occasions, earned it the ire of the brahmanical forces.

Viduthalai is still in existence. It is edited by K. Veeramani, who had joined the newspaper in 1956. He took over as editor in 1978.

Unmai

“Unmai” is Tamil for something that exists or is real. Unmai was the name of a Tamil fortnightly published by Periyar. The newspaper’s first issue came out on 14 January 1970. The newspaper was devoted to the changes coming about in Indian society. The cover page of the inaugural issue carried a picture of Buddha. The second page carried the teachings of Buddha in his own words. Like other newspaper edited by Periyar, Unmai, too, was devoted to the annihilation of Brahmanism, caste and social and gender discrimination. Unmai is still being published in a digital form. K. Veeramani is its editor.

The Modern Rationalist

The Modern Rationalist was an English-language monthly. Its first issue in 1971 carried the picture of Periyar on the cover page. Later, many national leaders, including Indira Gandhi, Kamaraj and Annadurai, appeared on its cover. As is clear from its title, The Modern Rationalist aimed at inculcating respect for and faith in logic and reason in its readers. The journal published the ideas and beliefs of leading rationalists from all over the world, including Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Copernicus, Darwin, Bruno, Anaxagoras, Confucius, Huxley, Thomas Paine, Hegel, Rousseau and others, from time from time. There was a regular column devoted to the writings and the speeches of Periyar. Another column was reserved for scientific inventions. The newspaper also critiqued Hindu religious philosophy.

This was the only periodical devoted to Periyar’s thinking. It exposed the truth behind superstitions and rituals. It is still being published.

The Rational Books Publication Society

Rationalism as a way of thinking emerged in the West in the 15-16th centuries. At the time, India was in the throes of a parallel revolution and counter-revolution. While saint-poets like Kabir and Raidas were fighting socio-cultural evil practices and fashioning utopias like Amarpuri and Begumpura, other poets like Tulsidas and Surdas were, deliberately or otherwise, strengthening the Varnashrama dharma in the name of Bhakti. By the 20th century, intellectual renaissance had reached its zenith in the West, where the people were endeavouring to build their societies in consonance with modern life-values. In India, top intellectuals helming different institutions, under the garb of cultural renaissance, were trying their best to stop the intellectual consciousness of Western origin from striking roots in the country. They enjoyed whole-hearted backing of the dominant political and economic forces. Such was the situation Periyar was caught up in. He was a staunch rationalist and wanted the people to make reason the mainstay of their thought process and to break free from the evils being propagated in the name of religion. For that to happen, it was essential to introduce the people to the modern streams of thought.

The scriptures could be countered only by books armed with modern life-values. That was why besides editing/publishing newspapers like Kudi Arasu, Puratchi and Viduthalai, Periyar, who was very impressed with the Rationalist Press Association of London, also established The Rational Books Publication Society. The Society came into being on 13 December 1932 and was registered as a limited company. The Society was basically an offshoot of the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar wanted to build a corpus of Rs 30,000 by selling the shares of the company at the rate of Rs 10 per share. The corpus was to be used for publishing Indian and foreign literature on intellectual discourse. Many well-known intellectuals and authors were associated with the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar wanted their thoughts and ideas to reach the entire Dravidian population through the four south Indian languages. Initially, the Society published books only in Tamil. In the first phase, 20 books by leading rationalists from all over the world were made available to the people at affordable prices[13].

Among the books published by the Society were Materialism and Kudi Arasu Kulambagam (collection) by Periyar. The two books, running into 72 and 120 pages respectively, were a compilation of the speeches delivered at the meetings of the Self-Respect Movement and select editorials and articles published in Kudi Arasu, Puratchi, Viduthalai and others. Periyar had become very vocal on issues like religion, god and clergy. The rest of the books were also acerbic attacks on religion and theism. They brutally dismembered religion, god and ritualism. The books published by the Society included M. Singaravelu’s Scientific Techniques and Superstitions, Robert G. Ingersoll’s The Gods and Why I am an Agnostic, Bertrand Russell’s Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?, Joseph Martin McCabe’s Is There Life After Death? and George Townshend Fox’s Priestly Celibacy Exposed[14]. What was common to all these books written by different authors at different times was that they questioned the relevance of religion and god. Their central message was that god, religion, soul, virtuous and sinful deeds, heaven and hell are only human imaginations; these have been created by the priests to serve their own vested interests; the priests fool the humans into ignoring this world for the imaginary other world; man is a rational being and rationality should determine his beliefs, hence, reason and logic should be deployed to negate the dead faiths thrust on the people by the priestly class; scientific thinking, logic and reason should be used to dismantle superstitions like god, religion, heaven and hell, virtuous and sinful deeds and worship as they insult the reasoning faculty of the human being.

Among the books published by the Rational Books Publication Society, many were translations from English and attacked Christianity and the Church. This angered the Catholic Church, which lodged a complaint against Periyar and the Self-Respect Movement. As a result, Kudi Arasu’s editor and publisher were arrested by the Government of Madras Presidency. The case went to court and both of them were ordered to deposit sureties of Rs 1,000 each for disrupting social harmony. But the Catholic Church was not satisfied. It appealed to its followers not to fall into the trap of the blasphemers and continue to be loyal to the church. Commenting on these books which advocated materialism and questioned the rationale and usefulness of the concepts of religion and god, the Catholic Church said, “These books are just Tamil versions of books written a long time ago in the West and display the sophism and mindlessness of their writers.” About the leaders of the movement, the Catholic Church said that they called themselves self-respecters though they were slaves to their own futile arguments and false beliefs.

Periyar was now under pressure from the government and the attack from the Catholic Church. Brahmins were already flaying him for being a traitor to religion and culture. The government, the Catholic Church and the Brahmins – all wanted to discourage Periyar and his associates. Yet, the popularity of the Self-Respect Movement was growing by leaps and bounds. Periyar and his associates were very efficiently taking their communist agenda forward. The emphasis on materialism was a part of that agenda.

The activities of the movement spread rapidly in the period 1934-35. This made Periyar even more popular among the masses. Sensing a good opportunity, Periyar resumed the publication of Kudi Arasu from 13 January 1936. This was a big achievement for the movement. The circulation of Kudi Arasu grew from 2,000 to 10,000. The Self-Respect Movement had established Readers’ Centres in remote villages. The copies of the newspaper reaching the villages were read out at these centres in the presence of dozens of people and sometimes the entire village. Thus, the contents of each copy were read and heard by hundreds and acted as a powerful medium for dissemination of the ideology of the movement. Around the same time, a new journal, Tamilian, supportive of the cause of the movement, began publication. This also showed the growing clout of the movement.

The opponents of the movement, however, were also active. On their complaint, the police raided the offices of Kudi Arasu and of the Rational Books Publication Society on 20 January 1935. Both the offices were thoroughly searched. The residence of its chief editor, E.V. Krishnasamy, was also raided. The next day, on 21 January, the office of Samdharma at Jolarpet was raided, following which Krishnaswamy and Jeevanandam were arrested[15]. Jeevanandam was the honorary editor of Samdharma. Both were charged with hatching a conspiracy against the government. Samdharma’s editor was asked to deposit a security of Rs 3,000 for continuing the publication. Depositing the security would have meant subjecting the journal to constant scrutiny by the government. The detractors of the movement were no less active and there was always the possibility of penal action in the future. In December 1934, after much deliberation it was decided to cease the publication of Samdharma. At the time, the movement was planning to launch two monthlies – Pagutharivu and Capital from Erode and Nagapattinam, respectively. The government was dead set against the movement. It began contemplating imposing bonds before permitting the publication of the two journals. One reason for the government’s fury was the publication of Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist by the movement both in Kudi Arasu and separately as a booklet. Translated by Jeevanandan into Tamil, the booklet, like Kudi Arasu, was printed at the Unmai Vilakkam Press, Erode. All the copies were seized immediately after printing. The opponents of the movement were convinced that pressure from all sides would lead to the collapse of the movement. But nothing of the sort happened. Its leaders didn’t lose heart. Their faith in communism and materialism remained intact. Articles praising the twin ideologies continued to be published in Kudi Arasu and Pagutharivu. The Soviet Union continued to be their ideal. Government’s anger, attacks by the Catholic Church, speculations by newspapers and the police raids on their offices had triggered all kinds of rumours about the movement. To clear the air, on 6 March 1935, Periyar issued a written statement to try and remove the misconceptions regarding the objectives and the working of the movement. He wrote:

“I have noticed that for some time, misapprehensions have been spread about the objectives and the programmes of the Self-Respect Movement. The baseless and motivated propaganda by the enemies of the movement is majorly behind it. Hence, I consider it necessary to offer an explanation to address the wrong notions about the movement in the minds of the people and to protect them from the false propaganda by mischievous elements.”

He wrote further:

“It has been made amply clear in the past, too, that the basic objective of the Self-Respect Movement is to free the oppressed and exploited castes of south India from their miseries and take them on the path to betterment. In addition, improving the lot of women is also the objective of the movement. To achieve these objectives, it is essential for the movement to have a concrete social, economic and political ideology and work in keeping with it. As the key initiator of this movement, I am committed to confining its activities to the three above-mentioned fields (social, economic and political).”[16]

The statement gave the impression that Periyar was capitulating before the government. But the fact was that due to his communist leanings and the policies of the movement vis-à-vis religion, the government was extremely incensed. This explanation was needed to protect the movement from the fatal blows of the government. The statement evoked different reactions. The issue of Kudi Arasu that carried this statement also carried an advertisement of a recently published book by Jean Meslier. This was the twentieth book published by the Society, which was focused on materialism and which dealt severe blows to the concepts of god, soul and religion and to the Catholic Church.

References

[1] Kudi Arasu, 2 May 1925

[2] Kudi Arasu, 2 May 1925, quoted in Revathi Thomas, ‘E.V.R. Periyar as a Publicist: Press as an Instrument for Social Change (1925-1949)’, doctoral thesis, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli

[3] Kudi Arasu, 13 November 1932

[4] Kudi Arasu, 20 November 1932

[5] The Madras Mail, 27 July 1928

[6] Quoted by Dr E.Sa. Viswanathan, in ‘The Political Career of E.V. Ramasamy Naicker: A Study in the Politics of Tamil Nadu, 1920-1949’, 1983, Madras, p 84

[7] Kudi Arasu, 22 April 1928, quoted by V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai in Revolt – A Radical Weekly in Colonial Madras

[8] Revolt, 22 May 1939

[9] Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R., The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 2007

[10] B.S. Chandrababu, Social Protest and its Impact in Tamil Nadu, Emerald Publishers, 1993, pp 49-93 and Revathi Thomas, ‘E.V.R. Periyar as a Publicist’, p 169

[11] Pagutharivu, 11 November 1934

[12] Government Report, Number 17, Year 1938, Volume 36, 21 November 1938, Tamil Nadu

[13]  N.K. Mangalamurugesan, Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu (1920-1940), p 125

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, p 128

[16] Ibid, p 129

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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